Ancient Civilizations

Ancient Civilizations

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The Aztecs/Mexicas

Fearless warriors and pragmatic builders, the Aztecs created an empire during the 15th century that was surpassed in size in the Americas only by that of the Incas in Peru. As early texts and modern archaeology continue to reveal, beyond their conquests and many of their religious practices, there were many positive achievements:



  • formation of a highly specialized and stratified society and an imperial administration
  • expansion of a trading network as well as a tribute system
  • development/maintenance of a sophisticated agricultural economy, adjusted to the land 



The yearly round of rites and ceremonies in the cities of Tenochtitlan and neighboring Tetzcoco, and their symbolic art and architecture, gave expression to an ancient awareness of the interdependence of nature and humanity.


The Aztecs remain the most extensively documented of all Amerindian civilizations at the time of European contact in the 16th century. Spanish friars, soldiers, and historians and scholars of Indian or mixed descent left invaluable records of all aspects of life. These ethnohistoric sources, linked to modern archaeological inquiries and studies of ethnologists, linguists, historians, and art historians, portray the formation and flourishing of a complex imperial state.


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The Incas

For purposes of administration the empire was divided into four parts, the lines of which met at Cuzco; the quarters were divided into provinces, usually on the basis of former independent divisions. These in turn were customarily split into an upper and a lower moiety; the moieties were subdivided into ayllus, or local communities. Much as it exists today as the basic unit of communal indigenous society, so the ancient ayllu was the political and social foundation of Inca government. When a territory was conquered, surveys, consisting of relief models of topographical and population features, and a census of the population were made. With these reports, recorded on quipus, of the material and human resources in each province, populations were reshuffled as needed. Thus transplanted, and dominated by Quechua colonists, the subject peoples had less chance to revolt, and the separate languages and cultures were molded to the Inca pattern.

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The Mayans

Mayan contributions were many. They developed an advanced writing system. Their history, entrusted to cactus fiber parchment, fared poorly against the ravages of time and Spanish censors saw to the destruction of much of the remainder. However, many of their carvings on stone have survived and provide much of what is known today about their civilization. The Mayans also were gifted mathematicians who independently developed the concept of zero, and astronomers who deduced that a solar year was slightly more than 365 days. Despite these achievements, the Mayans and other Meso-American cultures failed to discover the utility of the wheel.

The decline of Mayan civilization was well under way by 1100 B.C. The causes are uncertain, but speculation points to warfare, crop failures and disease as leading possibilities. By the time of the Spanish arrival around 1520, the Mayans were a starkly diminished civilization; their great cities were abandoned and the remnants of their population widely scattered.

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